Piles of paperwork, conflicting messages and lack of information have been a source of major frustration. That’s what homeowners and nonprofit workers trying to navigate Hurricane Sandy disaster aid told a joint legislative committee hearing Thursday at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
Nearly a dozen members of the Legislature heard testimony from nonprofit groups, experts and homeowners about the problems affecting recovery from the storm, which struck Oct. 29. Nearly two dozen speakers also voiced concerns they had over various rebuilding policies, or lack thereof, as well as what they considered holes in the state’s efforts regarding rebuilding for future storms.
“We’re a little bit drunk with all this money. This federal appropriation is massive and unprecedented, and it makes you a little less concerned about what you do,” said Mark Mauriello, former Department of Environmental Protection commissioner. “We have to make sure we’re spending on things that don’t come back to haunt us.”
Atlantic City NAACP President Linda Steele told the committee the ongoing lack of affordable housing in the city made recovery much more difficult for renters living in apartments damaged during the storm. Many of those residents fear speaking out about living in unrepaired, flooded-out buildings because they worry their landlords could put them on the street, Steele said.
“The people who have been affected by Sandy have no place to go,” Steele said of many low-income Atlantic City renters.
Additionally, Steele said, many residents, including senior citizens, are struggling to fill out paperwork to apply for aid. And if they are rejected, they struggle with how to proceed.
“The complications of the process for many of the senior citizens we’ve tried to work with and deal with is just overwhelming,” she said. “When people are deemed not eligible, few of them have the wherewithal to continue the process.”
Simone Dannecker, of Union Beach, told the committee she has filled out several binders of paperwork as she struggled with her insurance company and mortgage company. “We are wrapped up in so much paperwork it consumes your life,” she said.
Dannecker said she also has faced conflicting information from her mortgage and insurance companies. She says at first her mortgage company said her husband, who is a contractor, could do the repairs to the house. But after the couple already had spent more than $25,000 to begin repairs, the mortgage company changed its mind.
Dannecker, along with Steve Young, of Atlantic City, told the committee they faced additional delays in receiving their insurance settlements out of escrow because their mortgages were sold to new companies. The new companies, they said, delayed release of the money until they could verify things such as ownership.
Maryann Flanigan, an attorney with Legal Services of New Jersey, asked the committee to further examine why insurance companies withheld or delayed information to policy holders while those policy holders struggled to appeal puny settlements.
Additionally, Flanigan said, landlords of certain properties currently are not required to tell their tenants they are in a flood zone. Now those tenants who did not know they needed flood insurance have no recourse. Landlords, she said, face no legal penalty for not disclosing to renters that their property could be flooded.
Reaching those most in need, such as the elderly and mentally ill, has been an ongoing struggle, Vicki Phillips, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, told the committee. The stress of managing grant applications, seeking assistance and even having the mental capacity to make major decisions has caused some people to effectively not make any repairs because they are fearful to move forward, Phillips said.
While Atlantic County’s Long Term Recovery Group has received a major grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to hire caseworkers, the need for those caseworkers is significantly higher. “We need more people out on the streets talking to people,” Phillips said.
Mauriello and American Littoral Society Executive Director Tim Dillingham warned the committee that current state rebuilding policies, along with current Federal Emergency Management Agency flood policies, do not consider future conditions, including sea level rise. And as such, they said, the state risks spending billions in federal taxpayer dollars and a future storm could wipe out all of the work.
Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, told the more than 100 people in the room the committees will hold another hearing in the coming months in Trenton.
“It is obvious that the state needs to be clearer in its directives and requirements, and to clear up the many gray areas that remain in the minds of residents,” Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said in a statement. “Families looking to rebuild need clear, concise direction on how to proceed, and the longer they must wait for that, the longer our recovery from the storm will take, and the bigger its toll on our economy will be.”
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